Monday, July 6, 2015

Randy on Vocabulary

Jigsaw Reading on Vocabulary
Randy Limon

After our jigsaw reading and sharing yesterday, I have realized that academic language development is paramount across disciplines.

It’s like learning a foreign language for the first time. Living in China for 10 years does not make me fluent in Mandarin. I might be if I had pushed myself harder to understand the language. The intricacy of the characters and tone of the language made it so difficult for me to learn it. Without proper instruction and practice, it is almost impossible to speak the language. I am still learning Mandarin.

Bridging the gap between the vocabulary instructions and student’s academic language acquisition is integral in developing independent learners. Students need to have access to academic vocabulary in order to utilize the proper terms in the disciplinary texts being studied or grasp the complexity of texts used in content areas.

Many students find it difficult to connect with the academic language because they are not given opportunities to use them. As an educator, we need to create an atmosphere of learning academic language in classroom constantly.

We can employ some of the effective strategies to allow students to use academic language in their practice.
·      Teach students how morphological awareness can be used in understanding academic texts
·      Engage students through activities such as pair or group shares, quick writes and matching activities applying the academic language
·      Scaffold these concepts using academic language through oral rehearsal  (paraphrasing) and systematic study (multiple modality)

Instruction and practice take a vital role in developing student’s performance in learning content. Letting the students to discover the convention on their own can impact the language acquisition in content areas as well.

Another way to enhance academic language connection in class is to set clear language objectives in your lessons. Students will not succeed if they don’t know what to learn and even more so they won’t succeed if they do not know what to do. Language objectives will help teachers incorporate activities that will allow students to read, write, speak and listen to academic language used in the classroom. Ultimately, this action can foster effective content literacy.

Learning can only take place if new meaning is created and language is a resource to develop these meanings. At the same time it helps students to express their thoughts and observations in a sophisticated way. Without these language skills, the transferred teaching contents remain one-dimensional and hard to relate to and therefore are unlikely to be permanently anchored in the students’ heads. The proper use of academic language is indispensible for putting the newly acquired abilities in a context in real life.  


  1. Hi Randy,
    This is really comprehensive. I think you make a good point of noting that students will learn quicker, better and more effectively when they learn the roots of words, read more, have discussions with peers and also provided some guidance by the instructor to facilitate learning. Also, having access to different texts can provide a richer way of knowing about a subject, or helping to relate to it more easily. Reading should be a joy, because it has so many benefits.

    1. Thanks Maha, True, what resonated me the most about this topic is the significance of morphological awareness on vocabulary for teaching and learning. The first reason is the high frequency of morphologically complex words within academic language. Teaching our students how to identify the information carried by morphemes in a particular vocabulary is really useful in understanding the vocabulary. Though it seems so easy, teachers should be given proper training on how you can model this type of strategies in class. I would definitely use this strategy in my teaching in the future. I agree that reading has so many benefits and I hope that we can continue to inspire our young developing readers by enriching their learning experience.

  2. Randy, wow this was so great to read and it was nice to "hear your voice" come through in your writing. I agree with Maha that this is comprehensive but I would like to had that it is also incredibly thoughtful. This struck me...."Language objectives will help teachers incorporate activities that will allow students to read, write, speak and listen to academic language used in the classroom. Ultimately, this action can foster effective content literacy." I am glad you made this point because it should be essentially the mottos for this class. ALL teachers should contribute to the literacy learning of students and to do that they must also have language goals in mind whether they are for vocabulary learning, fluency, written responses, oral language skills, or reading comprehension skills. I think we are getting there but it is still difficult in the upper grades and there are a lot of competing factors: the lack of professional development, the focus on high stakes testing, and organizational factors such as time spent in class or time spent reading.

    1. Thanks Jim, I believe that all of us are language teachers. We cannot really teach content by just letting our students to discover academic language on their own. Developing readers will be left behind or will lose interest in learning the subject. Having clear language objectives in the class makes learning more productive for both teachers and students. Simply because this allow the students to explore the academic language used to see their own understanding. I fully understand the factors that hinder teachers to incorporate this in their lessons. But for those who can see the benefit of this strategy will do something to promote this in their classroom. Teachers can always ask themselves this.. "Who used the language?"

  3. Randy, thanks for sharing your blog. I think you have done a good job of identifying potential issue students can have with bridging gaps between vocabulary instruction and students academic language acquisition. As international teachers we definitely need to be aware of this. You also identified the need for students to grasp the complexity of text used in content areas. I completely agree, in every one the TCNJ courses I took, I’ve had professors use new vocabulary words that I didn’t know. Because I didn’t know some of the content vocabulary, I found the context to be difficult to understanding. After learning the definition I was able to make more meaningful connections, which provided me with a better understanding.
    I plan to start emphasizing how mythological awareness can be used to better understand academic text. I think Nate provided a powerful example of this when he described the meanings of “understand” in the context of North American, South American and Thai languages. Good luck with implementing these strategies in your classroom.

    1. Thanks Yusef! We cannot expect our students to learn everything on their own. We cannot assume that they already know all these academic text we are using in the class. They might not have the prior knowledge to grasp the concept you are teaching. Working in an international school made me realized this. It is important to consider the background of my students. Students come and go in international school. I have had students who sat in my class and never had prior knowledge in the content area that I am teaching. I cannot expect them to learn the language on their own. I gave them extra support for them to catch up. You just have to be patient as they learn along the way. They become motivated if you show that you care about them too.

  4. First of all, I really enjoyed how you tell the story of your experience learning Mandarin. It has been 10 years down the line and you clearly mention that you are still learning. Without so much knowledge of how Mandarin really works, I have been led to believe that it is a very difficult language to grasp and can be very confusing to the learner. I am connection this story to learning of vocabulary. It clearly shows that the acquisition of vocabulary to all students but especially to those to whom English is not the first language can be frustrating and confusing. It has been interesting to me to find out that there are many instances in classrooms all over the world where vocabulary is not explicitly taught or teachers would simply assume that students know some words. Reading through your post makes me reflect in ways I have taught vocabulary before. One thing I took away from you is the need to set clear language objectives in my classroom. While I have done this before, I feel that many times these objectives weren’t as clear to my students. So I would go ahead and say teachers should set clear learning objectives and make sure that students know what they are.

    In your post you also do mention “students need to have access to academic vocabulary in order to utilize the proper terms in the disciplinary texts”. You also mention “the proper use of academic language is indispensible for putting the newly acquired abilities in a context in real life”. Did you mean only in real life contexts where these vocabulary words are generally used? What if the students are not interested in the field where these words are used? Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks Francis, I am glad that you enjoyed my post. I think helping our students understand the meaning of vocabulary that we used in content areas will empower them to use the academic language in any context at the school or wherever necessary. As educator, we have to tell our students the purpose of learning the academic language. We have to give them the opportunity to use these words and encourage them to communicate their ideas at the standard level. You have to set this expectation to your students way ahead so they will be encouraged to do so. It is imperative that we get this message across to students even if they are not interested. Sometimes we forgot to highlight this issues with our student and then we expect so much from them. We need to be able to teach them the language explicitly with enthusiasm and consistency as well. I hope this helps.